American Youth Congress

views updated


Coming of age at a time of war crises abroad and economic crisis at home, Depression generation youth embraced new forms of political activism. They organized, for the first time in American history, a national youth lobby, the American Youth Congress (AYC), which promoted a left-liberal agenda, demanding expanded government assistance to underprivileged youth and rallying against war and fascism. At its peak in the late 1930s the AYC assembled a broadly based youth coalition, which claimed to represent some 4.5 million young Americans from civil rights, labor, student, religious, fraternal, political party, and peace organizations. Arising in an era when the voting age was twenty-one, and in a political system that had traditionally ignored young people—especially blue collar, unemployed, student, and minority youth—the AYC found daring and effective ways to give voice to the needs of the young. The AYC organized the first national youth marches on Washington (demanding jobs and education), held international congresses of young people, and sponsored its own youth assistance legislation—the American Youth Act. This activism made headlines and for a time attracted influential allies to the AYC, most notably First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who befriended AYC national officers, raised money for the Youth Congress, attended some its meetings, and defended the Youth Congress's leaders when they came under attack by the red-hunting House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Although the Youth Congress's founder, Viola Ilma, was a political moderate, the organization would be dominated by the Left, beginning at its first national meeting in 1934 when Ilma was ousted from the Congress's leadership by a coalition headed by young Communists and Socialists. Reflecting the radicalism of this new leadership, the AYC was initially critical of the New Deal for failing to solve the problems of unemployed youth and needy students and for its other shortcomings, including its refusal to challenge the discriminatory racial practices of the Jim Crow South. Complaining that the National Youth Administration (NYA), the New Deal's primary youth relief organization, assisted only a fraction of the five to eight million unemployed young Americans and that NYA work-study jobs were too few to assist most low income students, the Youth Congress in 1935 wrote the American Youth Act as an alternative to the NYA. Unlike the NYA, the Youth Act would have helped all unemployed youth and needy students. But the Youth Act proved too expensive to ever get out of committee on Capitol Hill. Critics estimated that its annual cost would have been $3.5 billion, as opposed to the $50 million allocated to the NYA.

Even though the Youth Act never became law, the AYC's campaign for this legislation, which included a national march of some three thousand young people on Washington in 1937, helped to spotlight the problems of Depression-era youth, calling attention to the "youth crisis"—the lack of employment and educational opportunity that confronted millions of young Americans in the 1930s. By raising public awareness of the need for expanding federal aid to low income youth, the AYC helped to sustain a political climate friendly to the New Deal's youth program. Indeed, by 1938, the Youth Congress had dropped its advocacy of the American Youth Act and instead campaigned for an expanded NYA. This growing alliance with the New Deal emerged because the Youth Congress was concerned about Republican threats to cut the NYA and because the AYC's influential Communist faction—in accord with the new Comintern line advocating liberal-radical unity against fascism—embraced Franklin Roosevelt and stressed the need to defend the New Deal from the forces of reaction. The high point of the AYC's alliance with the Roosevelt administration came in summer 1938 when Eleanor Roosevelt played a prominent role at the AYC-sponsored World Youth Congress meeting, which united young people from around the world on behalf of a progressive antifascist platform.

The AYC's alliance with the Roosevelt administration collapsed in a very public way during the Youth Congress Citizenship Institute in February 1940, sending the AYC into a tailspin from which it would never recover. Five thousand Youth Congress delegates had come to Washington for this Citizenship Institute, which was supposed to be a pro-New Deal event, teaching young people about government and involving them in lobbying for federal jobs and student aid programs. But the AYC's Communist faction—having dropped its antifascism in the wake of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact—converted the Institute into a demonstration against Roosevelt's foreign policies, especially his opposition to the Soviet invasion of Finland. President Roosevelt, irritated that the Youth Congress had portrayed him as an imperialist war monger merely because he had criticized that invasion, responded by delivering an angry speech to the Institute delegates who had assembled on the White House lawn. Roosevelt told the delegates and a national radio audience that the Youth Congress's charge that he was seeking war with Russia was "unadulterated twaddle." This and other criticisms that Roosevelt made of the Youth Congress and of the Soviet Union provoked the Communists in the crowd to raucous booing, and a similar response followed when Eleanor Roosevelt addressed the delegates. This public relations disaster, the Youth Congress's flipflop on antifascism, and the organization's refusal to criticize Soviet policy, led young people to abandon what once had been Depression America's most dynamic youth lobby. With the collapse of the AYC both the American Left and the younger generation lost an invaluable political asset, for the Youth Congress had represented one of the most diverse movements of young Americans—uniting black and white, rural and urban, student and nonstudent, religious and secular, lower and middle-class, immigrant and old stock, liberal and radical—ever to organize on behalf of egalitarian social change.



Cohen, Robert. When the Old Left Was Young: StudentRadicals and America's First Mass Student Movement, 1929–1941. 1993.

Cohen, Robert. "Revolt of the Depression Generation: America's First Mass Student Protest Movement, 1929–1940." Ph.D. diss. University of California, Berkeley, 1987.

Cohen, Robert, and Thomas Thurston. "Student Activism in the 1930s." New Deal Network.

Draper, Hal. "The Student Movement of the Thirties: A Political History." In As We Saw the Thirties: Essays on Social and Political Movements of a Decade, edited by Rita James Simon. 1969.

Eagan, Eileen. Class, Culture, and the Classroom: The Student Peace Movement of the 1930s. 1982.

Lash, Joseph, P. Eleanor: A Friend's Memoir. 1964.

Rawick, George. "The New Deal and Youth: The Civilian Conservation Corps, the National Youth Administration, and the American Youth Congress." Ph.D. diss. University of Wisconsin, 1957.

Robert Cohen

About this article

American Youth Congress

Updated About content Print Article